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Zinc: Element Facts, Properties & Discovery

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

What do you know about the element zinc? In this lesson, we will discuss zinc's properties, where it comes from, historically where it came from, and even throw in a few fun facts about it.

What is Zinc?

''From A to Zinc'' is a popular slogan used by vitamin and health companies, but when was the last time you stopped to think about the 'zinc' part of that statement? What do you really know about this alphabetically last element? You might be surprised with what you learn here today!

Zinc is element number 30 on the periodic table.
zinc on the periodic table

Zinc is atomic number 30 on the periodic table, which puts it smack between copper and gallium. It is solid at room temperature (it doesn't melt until a whopping 419°C/787°F!), and is a metal. In fact, zinc is good conductor but very resistant to corrosion, and this makes it useful for plating or coating other metals like copper and iron that corrode more easily. The metal itself is bluish-white, brittle under 100°C/212°F, but malleable or shapeable when heated to above this temperature.

Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, is officially credited with discovering zinc.
Andreas Marggraf

It was between 1100 - 1500 that zinc was recognized as a metal, and was heavily refined in India during this time. Though technically he rediscovered the element, historical records officially credit Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, in 1746 with zinc's discovery. And appropriately, the word 'zinc' comes from the German 'zink' or 'zinke', which means pointed.

Zinc & Biology

Remember how at the beginning of the lesson I mentioned that ''A to Zinc'' slogan used by health companies? There's a reason for that! Zinc may be a metal, but it's also an essential trace element for every living thing, both plants and animals. It's called a trace element because you only need it in very small amounts. In general, zinc is not toxic, but too much of it can be.

Dark chocolate is one natural food source of zinc as a trace element.
image of dark chocolate

Your body has about 2.5 grams of zinc in it and you take in about 15 milligrams of the stuff every single day. We get it from things like dark chocolate, garlic, sesame seeds, chickpeas, cheese, and beef. You can also get it through vitamins and supplements. Either way, it's very important for biological processes such as growth and immune function.

Where We Find Zinc

Zinc is found on Earth as an ore, a material from which it can be extracted. We find zinc occurring as these materials: sphalerite, smithsonite, calamine, and franklinite. China, Australia, and Peru are the top producers of zinc in the world, and also have the largest reserves.

Fun Facts About Zinc

You may think that's all there is to know about zinc. But zinc is a really cool and important element! Zinc is used in places you would never expect - like sunscreen. Think that penny in your pocket is copper? Think again! Pennies used to be mostly copper and just a little bit zinc (95% and 5%, respectively). But in 1982 that was switched because zinc is cheaper, and now pennies are 97.5% zinc and only 2.5% copper.

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